Taking the Train 101: Lesson Three -- Taking a Night Train
The first two articles covered basic domestic and international itineraries by train, particularly short journeys (three hours or less) taken during the day. For longer journeys, however, the thought of riding a train for eight or ten hours might not sound appealing. However, the train companies offer night train services that let you travel long distances and get a comfortable nightís sleep in the process.
There are three types of accommodations available on night trains: private beds, couchettes, and reclining chairs. The private bed compartments are the most expensive and comfortable. Couchettes are normally provided six to a cabin, but are very inexpensive, and Iíve always had considerate fellow passengers. The reclining chairs are like normal train seats, but sometimes they recline more than normal. I prefer the couchette.
The first photo shows a sample couchette, showing two seats facing each other under normal configuration. The two seats fold down into a lower bunk, and the upper bunk folds down from above. The ladder is stored off to the side. There are couchette arrangements that are less cozy than this, including six-bed compartments. I do not mind these, I've only once encountered a rude or less-than-fully-considerate fellow passenger in such quarters.
Travelers on night trains must reserve their accommodations, and the conductors will check you off their list as you board. If you are traveling internationally, you must surrender your passport if requested. Border crossings will be handled by the conductor, and it is rare that you will be disturbed when this happens. (You may, however, be disturbed by customs officials, but normally they are discreet.)
Here are a couple tips to keep in mind when planning a trip by night train.
Tip #1. In the Summer, Book Well in Advance
Night trains are very popular among the youth-hostel crowd, and on any given Friday night the trains will be loaded with them heading off to exotic far-away places. Trains going to resort areas (like southern France) will be booked. So, plan ahead and book as far in advance as you can.
Tip #2. Allow Minimum of Eight Hours aboard a Night Train
Night train itineraries can be rough. They will pick up passengers at late as midnight and reach destinations as early as 4:30AM. If you choose the night train, be sure to afford yourself a good nightís sleep. Choose a destination with a reasonable arrival time (no earlier than 6AM) and that allows you eight hours rest, otherwise youíd be better off choosing a different itinerary.
Tip #3. Bring Your Own (Quiet) Alarm and Breakfast
Night train conductors do not announce arrivals over the loudspeaker, therefore it is incumbent upon you to be awake and ready at the appointed time. I typically use my cellphone as my alarm clock, with the ringer low so I donít disturb other passengers.
Also, most night trains have no on-board bistro, as passengers normally get their breakfast when they disembark. I normally pack my own breakfast, especially if I donít reach the destination until mid-morning.
Tip #4. Reliability is OK, butÖ
Night trains are normally on-time, but delays do happen. The most common cause is in delays in border crossings, which conductors handle themselves while the passengers sleep. Any passenger with an immigration problem will delay the whole train. If the night train takes you to your final destination, this is OK, but if you are connecting, be sure to have alternate plans ready.
This lesson was originally published on 6 June 2002 with a travelogue on my trip from Heidelberg, Germany to Cannes, France and the Cannes Film Festival.
(c) 2002 Tom Galvin